Saturday, September 8, 2012

External Factors Likely to Shape the Singapore Story in Years to Come

By beginning his National Day Rally speech with a reference to the Singapore story of having traveled from Third World to First, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong drew attention to what the next chapter could be in the coming two decades.

It is only natural for Singaporeans to answer with their own list of hopes and expectations, but the citizens of a city-state must be realistic.

The next chapter will certainly be written by Singaporeans, but the size of the pages and color of the ink will be decided outside the country.

Understanding Singapore’s vulnerabilities will be the link between the new chapter and its worthy predecessors.

At least three sets of factors will determine Singapore’s prospects in a rising Asia. They are not new. Nor is it new that Singapore has very little control over any of them. But they will be important in forming the international context in which Singaporeans imagine a new future.

The first factor is what Asia’s rise actually means, rather than what we would like it to mean. The euro zone crisis and America’s continuing problems have created a default situation for Asia’s economic rise.

This will be the rise primarily of China and India, from which Southeast Asia, a buffer between the two, can benefit if Asean gets its economic act together — a big “if” at the moment.

But even if Asean manages to integrate more closely, China and India may not advance on a shared wavelength.

On the contrary, they will most likely be busy creating political spheres of influence to reflect their new economic status. Given that their political systems are so different, those spheres will never merge.

If the two Asian giants remain at peace, the spheres will at least overlap and coexist. If there is conflict, Southeast Asia is the region most likely to be torn apart.

If that happens, the Singapore story could take a nasty turn. Given its economic, political and demographic connections with China and India, Mandarin and Hindi will compete with English as the language in which the world’s next chapter could be written.

The second factor is the role of the United States. The key question here is how long a country can afford to be a military superpower if its economic clout diminishes. At the moment, its status is secure because its military power vis-a-vis any challenger, real or potential, is overwhelmingly superior.

The supremacy of American power is evident both in its hardware and in the research and development that will create the next generation of hardware.

China’s military modernization, undoubtedly spectacular, is still modest relative to the United States’ prowess.

But if America’s economic advantages further erode, a time will come when the myth of imperial overreach — the idea that over-extension abroad causes problems at home — might capture the American public’s imagination.

In such a case, it could be difficult for the establishment to resist isolationist pressures from the populace.

There is a piece of good news on this front, however. As China rises, challenging although not dislodging American interests from the Asia-Pacific, it will become even more necessary for Americans to remain forward deployed in the region.

Given the interlocking of interests between America and Asia, which is underpinned by US military prowess, US military retrenchment would undermine the very access that the country needs to Asian economies to buttress the domestic economy.

In other words, the Chinese challenge to American supremacy might be just what is needed to reinforce the US military commitment to Asia.

The US “pivot” to Asia underlines the fact that, in spite of budget and defense cuts, it sees the region as being strategic to its national interest.

Concrete steps such as the pivot help dismiss the idea that America is headed for inevitable and irreversible decline.

In any case, a prominent American role in the evolving Asian balance of power will be conducive to Singapore’s security. No one in Singapore wants the containment of China: No one wants the containment of America, either.

The third factor is religion. Religions do not go to war: people do, with or without religion. However, a group’s thinking about religion and its motivating influence on its behavior can change alarmingly.

It is this change that is apparent even in Indonesia, where Islamization is well under way in a country that used to be the epitome of religious tolerance.

The Pancasila state is under no threat of being swept away, but its hold on the masses is being eroded gradually and stealthily by groups determined to impose Shariah law.

Malaysia is another country trying to come to terms with the new demands being made by religious forces using a quickening democratic process to advance their goals.

Every time Parti Islam Semalaysia makes gains within the opposition coalition, the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition led by the United Malays National Organization is obliged to look and sound more Islamic to prevent the political ground from being cut beneath its feet.

These foreign influences stop at Singapore’s borders. But that is because Singapore’s society is cohesive.

Without that strength, the next two decades might witness religious forces within Singapore, whichever religion they might represent, making increasingly shrill demands on the secular state.

How long will secularism in Singapore hold if it is surrounded by a rising tide of political religiosity in its immediate region? Yet, Singaporeans can do little to change the course of things in the region.

These three trends — Sino-Indian relations, the staying power of the United States and Southeast Asia’s shifting religious terrain — will have a direct impact on Singapore.

Realism has always been a penchant of Singaporeans. Being realistic now means contributing to a Singapore fabric strong enough to withstand the stresses of change.

It is perfectly within the rights of citizens to demand a new political economy. But it is their responsibility as well to remember that the world beyond these shores has its own logic, which is impervious to their desires. And the world does not owe Singapore a living.

Derwin Pereira, a former Straits Times journalist, heads Pereira International, a Singapore-based political consulting firm. Jakarta Globe illustration

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